After nearly a century curating a community's sense of fashion, Jefferson City's fashion institution is going out in style.
Saffees has been dressing Jefferson City families for 95 years and three generations of family ownership. Now, amid looming lease decisions and health considerations, the siblings who have spent their careers working the family business together have decided on a new course for the store's future and their own.
"As a partnership and a family, the four brothers and sisters have always believed we must make decisions together," Saffees co-owners Judy Howard, Marie Adrian and Mark and Steve Mercurio wrote in a letter to customers. "We have all reached the point in our lives where we want to spend more time with our children, grandchildren and friends. For that reason, we have all chosen to retire, and, although it saddens us, Saffees will close at the end of the year."
Samuel and Sadie Saffee opened Saffees at 808 Madison St. in 1923 as a furniture store.
"Furniture, bridal, then baby clothes — because back then when you were a mercantile owner, you provided needs for families," said Howard, Saffees buyer who operates the Jefferson City store. "They got furniture when people were married, then when people were married they had babies, and they had baby clothes, and then they needed clothes for themselves — and that's how it all evolved into clothes."
The Saffees' daughter, Lorraine, and her husband, Alphonse Mercurio, were among the second generation to work the store. Their children took over ownership of Saffees in 1992.
The Jefferson City store has always had a home downtown. After a 1960 fire destroyed the business, the Mercurios rebuilt Saffees in 1961 at the Monroe House building across from the Cole County Courthouse. They bought the current location at 227 E. High St. in 1969.
By the late 1980s, the Mercurios had expanded Saffees to six stores, with locations in Columbia, Osage Beach, Kansas City and two in Kansas. At one time, they operated up to nine stores, with the Jefferson City store supplying inventory for all the other locations.
As the family built its chain of specialty stores, they were helping women in Jefferson City, and eventually across the Midwest, build their wardrobes.
"I guess our business really started with the career woman. She had to dress to go to work. And that's what we very specifically paid attention to was that career woman because she was the one who had to look nice every day," Howard said. " We were known for our suits, and people would buy coordinates — they would buy the jacket, the skirt and the pants, with two or three tops. And that was basically what they'd do to build a wardrobe."
The "career woman" Saffees serves has changed during the years, and the store has changed with her.
"They have gotten so relaxed in their dressing that suit coats for women are kind of a thing of the past," Howard said. " The look (now) is very soft."
Also frequented for its formalwear, Saffees offers only a few pieces in a few sizes so local customers are less likely to show up at the same event in the same dress.
"That just makes you look more special because there's not 10 pieces of it sitting around and you can't see yourself at a party," Howard said. "You know, the town's too small to see repetition."
It's an example of another Saffees trademark — its personalized approach for customers.
"I have shopped for people for years. A lot of people just call and say, 'I need this for this occasion,'" Howard said. "It's the personal touch that made the difference, honestly. I just try to take care of the customers."
That's kept regular customers coming back.
"I go to market and I see something and say, 'Oh, she'll love this,'" Howard said. "I specifically buy things with customers in mind — what they like, style, color and fit. It's like a personal shopper, but without paying for it."
Kathy Wilbers has been one of those customers since she moved to Jefferson City in the early 1970s.
"I really don't like to shop; I like to come in and have them pull out the best of the best and just show me," Wilbers said. "They do that with everyone."
Her closet is full of special pieces the Saffees staff carefully suited to her needs.
"I'm a very petite person, so I go in to buy a fur coat or something, I look like a polar bear," Wilbers said. "Judy said, 'You know, this particular furrier will make one specially for you,' so she takes my measurements and sends them to the furrier and they make that custom."
Wilbers now has four or five fur coats ordered through Saffees and might consider another before the store closes. She's one of several regulars stocking up at Saffees while they still can.
"She helped dress me for a lot of occasions — Easter, Christmas, New Year's, dances that I was going to," said Linda Samson, who after years as a customer also has modeled Saffees clothes at local fashion shows. "I have many, many dance dresses from my ballroom dance days, and they would always call me when something they knew I'd like came in."
Saffees offers gift-wrapping, handles alterations and makes home deliveries. Often, its customer service goes above and beyond — Howard even takes special care of a longtime customer who is blind.
"I've been dressing her probably since 1992. I have to put everything in bags for her, cut the tags off, and I bring them home and put them in her closet. I pack her for trips," Howard said. " She can't see color, and her husband's blind too. So you have to put outfits together, and we have to hang them together, and you have to rubberband them and put a bag over them. She knows what's in every bag by feeling what they are."
To Howard, it's just part of how Saffees takes care of its friends.
"They kind of become like your family," said Barb Smith, who has been shopping at Saffees since she started working downtown 50 years ago. "Now, I go in there sometimes just to visit because it's kind of like your social life."
"We kind of lived our lives through their lives. We did baptisms, we did weddings, we did anniversaries, we did special occasions," Howard said. " We've been blessed in the sense that we've been able to share all of these moments with all of these people. And the community's been good to us."
Saffees, for its part, has been good to the community.
Sherrie Brant has been organizing fashion shows, many for local charities, in Jefferson City since 1973. She coordinates the Strut Your Style fashion show for the Community Breast Care Project, this year scheduled on Dec. 10. She said Saffees' contributions — and especially Howard's — have been essential to the shows' success.
"She could pull together my thoughts in clothing for the models to express a certain feeling," Brant said. " Saffees brings their clothes, their shoes, with each model's name with all the parts that go with it, jewelry, etc., and then dresses each girl, is there for each change."
Saffees also has provided clothing and support for the long-running Council of Clubs and Cole County Historical Society fashion shows over the years.
It's a family tradition of taking care of the community through the business.
"Lorraine, when she was alive, if I would call her and say, 'Lorraine, I've got a lady that's passed away, and the family doesn't have anything nice to bury her in,' she'd ask me the size of the lady, and, boom, we'd have a beautiful dress," said Marylyn DeFeo, executive director of the Samaritan Center in Jefferson City, which works to serve emergency needs of Mid-Missourians. "That happened many, many times, and Judy has carried on that tradition for us."
Over the years, DeFeo has called on Saffees when Samaritan Center clients have needed anything from school formal dresses to college graduation outfits.
"We just try to do everything we can to give their lives a little normalcy, and that's what Saffees helped us to do," DeFeo said.
The store often donated end-of-season clothing to stock the center's closet — even donated hangers when the center needed them.
The Samaritan Center will remodel its clothing room next spring, DeFeo said. When it does, the room will be renamed "Lorraine's Closet" in honor of Lorraine Mercurio, who died this past June.
"Everybody's going to miss the store, but they have to be happy for everybody retiring," Howard, 64, said. " I'm 45 years full time here, side by side with my mom. Forty-five years — that's a long time."
So far, the family has closed four stores — Saffees in Osage Beach, as well as its Envy junior label stores in Columbia, Springfield and Manhattan, Kansas.
Saffees' Jefferson City store, along with Saffees in Lawrence and Overland Park, Kansas, and Envy in Lawrence, will close Dec. 15.
"We wanted to have our first Christmas with our families because we've never had that," Howard explained. "We don't know what a holiday is. We don't know what a family vacation is — because we were always taught not to take them. We needed to be at work all the time."
When the family business is open, the family is working. Saffees' success has always come down to the family behind it, and that's remained true to the end.
"It's just the partnership of the four of us," Howard said. "I mean, we kind of had our own jobs, but it's just been the complete partnership of the four of us; that was it."